Sam's is what Annapolis is all about: the harbor, boats, fresh seafood, fine dining and good old-fashioned Maryland hospitality with a smart 21st-century style.
Ever since we lived in Washington, DC, we have headed for Annapolis with the anticipation of a good meal. Now we have to travel a lot farther to get there -- it's a full day's drive -- but we always cross the Bay Bridge thinking about what pleasures await us at the table. And since we go fairly often, we thought we were pretty familiar with most of the restaurants. But we wouldn't have found Sam's if my brother Charles hadn't suggested it for dinner the last time we arrived in town. It's not far from his home on Thomas Point, and he's clearly a regular, since everyone greeted him by name. I always said good taste in food ran in our family, and Sam's proved it.
The menu offered a lot of interesting choices. The Thai-style Prince Edward Island mussels in lemongrass sauce sounded divine, but I didn't drive south all day to eat mollusks from north of home, even though they are the best in the world. I mentally complimented Sam's for choosing top ingredients, but moved on. The night's special was fois gras, and the description was so good I could almost taste it, but it was too rich a beginning. Panko shrimp tempura, crisp but light, seemed just right -- and it was.
My husband immediately zeroed in on the scallops for an entree, my brother chose the duck, while I waffled between the crabcakes and rockfish. The former sounded wonderful -- lumps of crabmeat in a crispy panko coat, served with a cucumber tartar sauce and a butternut squash puree seasoned with lemon grass. But I love rockfish and my brother promised me that this chef knew how to do it right. He does.
The fish was tender and moist, its delicate flavor not obscured by extraneous seasonings. My husband's diver scallops arrived in a neat row, speared on a lemon grass stalk that infused them with its delicate fresh flavor as they grilled. They had been snatched from the grill at the exact moment to leave them silken in the center. The duck my brother ordered was pink-rare in the center and seared at the edges, juicy and rich in flavor.
Each entree was framed by a different shaped plate, and the arrangement of each dish's components was just as artful. I could have spent more time admiring it, but for the savory aromas that wafted from it. I had to restrain myself to wait until my companions were served before plunging my fork into that snow-white filet.
The owners and chef are dedicated to using fresh produce from local farms, emphasising organic and sustainable ingredients. One thing I liked was the variety in vegetables (why do restaurants insist on always serving the usual suspects?), and the fact that they were integrated as part of the dish, not just an afterthought on the plate. When the waiter -- a personable man who knew the menu and wine list well -- told us about the evening's specials, he included the vegetables, which told me that the chef chooses them carefully to compliment each entree.
My rockfish was served on a bed of still-crisp mixed vegetables that included leeks, fennel and red beets. My brother's pan-roasted duck breast languished on Swiss chard and the evening's special steak and shrimp was served with Chinese cabbage saute.
Desserts are not my favorite part of a meal, but I was happy to taste my husband's selection. Fruit crisps are a house specialty, and my brother had told me about the raspberry crisp. But tonight it was blueberry, the berries' flavor highlighted by lemon, served warm with vanilla ice cream. The "just a little taste" turned into several spoonsful.
Sam's serves lunch, budget-friendly bar meals and dinners, every day except Monday. My brother reports that the five-course Scotch dinners are worth coming back for, but I think I'll aim instead for one of the Chef's Table dinners with a wine pairing.
It wasn't until we left, and I asked the chef's name that the light-bulbs flashed in my head. We'd loved Chef Jerry Trice's sparkling cuisine at Yin-Yankee Cafe, at the docks, and now we know where to find him again.
Sam's on the Waterfront is at 2020 Chesapeake Harbor Drive East; tel: (410) 263-3600. Follow Bay Ridge Avenue from Annapolis's Eastport neighborhood (over the Spa Creek Bridge) and turn left onto Bay Ridge Road, then left onto Edgewood Road to find this local secret at the Chesapeake Harbor Marina.